Kildee eyes leadership post in House Democratic Caucus

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Rep. Dan Kildee

Washington — U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee is considering a bid for leadership in the House Democratic Caucus, saying there should be representation from the Midwest and not just America's coasts. 

Kildee, a Flint Township Democrat who is seeking re-election to his fourth term in Congress, said he doesn't have a specific post in mind, and he's not yet launching a campaign. 

But with fourth-ranking House Democrat Joe Crowley of New York leaving after a primary defeat last month, there's certain to be new leadership. And the fall midterm elections represent what might be Democrats' best shot at winning control of the House in years. 

"I’m interested in advancing my leadership role in the caucus. I don’t know what formal role that means at this point in time, but I’m doing it because I think it’s really important that our caucus be more reflective of the whole country and of communities like the ones I represent,” Kildee said in an interview.

"There are so many of them feel overlooked and not in the conversation. When it comes to the agenda, it’s set by people who put themselves in the room, and my goal is —whether it’s a formal leadership role or not — to increase the role I play in the caucus in terms of defining the direction we’re going to take."

Kildee's profile on Capitol Hill has risen in recent years, enhanced by his aggressive advocacy in response to the water contamination crisis in his hometown of Flint.

He considered but ruled out a run for Michigan governor last year, telling supporters that "staying in Congress is where I know that I can make the biggest impact for you."

Kildee, 59, is a senior whip in the Democratic caucus and the vice ranking Democrat on the influential House Financial Services Committee.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-New York, said "it's clear" Kildee will be on the short list of members who may get leadership opportunities that arise in the coming months.

"Dan Kildee is smart, pragmatic, compassionate and strategic and would be a tremendous asset to the House Democratic Caucus. In many ways during his time in Congress, he has distinguished himself as a leader, particularly as it relates to the Flint water crisis," Jeffries said in an interview. 

"Dan Kildee rose to the occasion on behalf of the people he represents in Flint, and that is something that caused people in this town to take notice of his passion and his ability." 

While Kildee has not named a post he wants, others have declared their intentions. Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-California, is running for caucus chair, and Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts this past week announced her campaign for vice chair. 

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California intends to run again, but a number of Democratic candidates and even current members have said it's time for new leaders to take the helm. 

"It’s a bit early to know precisely where I may try to land because it’s a really fluid environment," Kildee said. "We don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t what seats are going to be available or contested."

Kildee may not be the only Michigan member seeking to rise in the ranks. The New York Times has mentioned Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, as a prospective leadership candidate.

And Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, is looking to pursue "greater leadership" in women's issues through the Democratic Women’s Working Group and bipartisan Congressional Women’s Caucus, a spokeswoman said. Lawrence is currently vice chair of both. 

A party insider said Kildee may face difficulty in his bid if he simultaneously seeks a coveted seat on the powerful House Ways & Means Committee.

Kildee circulated a letter expressing interest in Ways & Means in December after Rep. Sandy Levin, D-Royal Oak, who sits on the panel, announced plans to retire.

A Kildee aide said he's still actively pursuing the Ways and Means seat, and that one would not preclude the other.

Leadership elections are still months away. House Democrats this week voted to push them back until after Dec. 5. 

Midwest 'microcosm'

Kildee said he represents a district that's a "microcosm" of the Midwest and the country, including small towns, urban communities, lake shore and agriculture. 

"I see the whole spectrum of what we're facing, especially in the Midwest, and I think that voice needs to be not just one of many voices in Congress, but we need to have a seat at the table," Kildee said. 

"We cannot just be a coastal party and think we represent the interests of all Americans."

"The agenda is determined by people who are in the room, and America’s older cities and towns ... have been left behind in the economy. Somebody needs to speak for them," he added.

Even if the current leadership remains, Kildee said he would like to see the Democrats adopting a leadership structure that's less centralized and "top-down" to include "many more members" and strengthen the role that committees play in the process.

Kildee also has strong feelings that, if Democrats retake the House, "that we not simply become the Democratic version of what Republican leadership has looked like since 2010."

"I’m pushing for us to try to get back to governing in an inclusive way, using the legislative process the way it was designed," Kildee said. 

"And not simply argue, posture, then parachute some bill in that nobody every saw go through committee onto the floor and push it through with a partisan majority. ... For me, the most important thing, and the reason I want to do this, is we have to reestablish credibility in this institution with the American people."

Campaign front line

As part of leadership, Kildee would be expected to do more campaigning and fundraising for candidates.  

Last election cycle, he chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's Frontline Program, which aims to protect vulnerable incumbent Democrats.

He has raised and contributed over $682,000 to help Democratic colleagues this cycle, including $201,000 to the DCCC and $328,350 for other members, aides said. 

Last week, he co-hosted a fundraiser for the DCCC in Detroit with the other Michigan House Democrats as well as Pelosi and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-New Mexico, that raised six figures.

Next week, Kildee will travel to Iowa and Minnesota to campaign for five DCCC candidates in districts that Democrats need to win to take control of the House.

Also during the August recess, Kildee will campaign for candidates in Michigan. Later this year, he has campaign swings planned for DCCC candidates in Michigan, New York, New Jersey and Illinois.